Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Do Aborted Babies Go To Heaven?

by Brian A. Graebe


In this article Brian A. Graebe discusses "whether or not Holy Mother Church has the power to declare that aborted infants are in Heaven, or in the current terminology, "Companion Martyrs to the Holy Innocents." It must be immediately affirmed that the ultimate decision on this issue in no way makes judgment upon the Divine Mercy, for indeed God may allow into his kingdom whomsoever he chooses. That is not subject for debate. The matter at hand is concerned specifically in determining the ability of the Church to make such a declaration."

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


54 - 59

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, July 2000

As medical science increasingly marvels at the personhood of the unborn child, and as social science is ever more aware of the disastrous impact of abortion on both mother and society, the theological implications of abortion have been largely ignored. Certainly there is no debate regarding the moral horror and excommunicable offense that abortion is; what is not clear is the state of the soul of the aborted child. Much of the discussion on this paramount point has been circumstantial: evaluating the consequences that a declaration of their salvation would have on the rate of abortion itself.1 The real issue remains, however, whether or not Holy Mother Church has the power to declare that aborted infants are in Heaven, or in the current terminology, "Companion Martyrs to the Holy Innocents." It must be immediately affirmed that the ultimate decision on this issue in no way makes judgment upon the Divine Mercy, for indeed God may allow into his kingdom whomsoever he chooses. That is not subject for debate. The matter at hand is concerned specifically in determining the ability of the Church to make such a declaration.

Most of the scholarly contribution to this matter comes from Msgr. John F. McCarthy, head of the Roman Theological Forum, in the July 1996 issue of his journal, Living Tradition. McCarthy attributes part of the impetus for undertaking this study to one Patricia de Menezes, a British woman claiming to have received a direct mandate from Christ to spread the cause of this declaration. Leaving aside the authenticity of these revelations, McCarthy does more to clarify and expound upon the central issues at hand than does any theologian before him. In so doing, he breaks down the many fine points of theology involved into two fundamental questions (both resting, of course, on the overriding question of the ecclesiastical capability): "Problems inherent in this question gravitate around the necessity of Baptism in order to be saved and the necessity of having been killed as a witness of Christ in order to be a martyr."2 An examination of these two questions, then, promises to offer some conclusion regarding the larger, central one with which this article is concerned.

Sacramental Baptism

Baptism is that sacrament in which both original and all actual sin are removed, and grace is infused into the purified soul. The Church from time immemorial has affirmed the necessity of Baptism for salvation. Our Lord's mandate prior to the Ascension has been constantly reaffirmed. Thus the Council of Trent decrees: "If anyone says that Baptism is optional, that is, not necessary for salvation, let him be anathema."3 This teaching is applied universally, extending to infants as well. Indeed, infants are created in the image of God, thereby possessing a soul and necessitating its liberation from Original sin. Our Lord twice in the Gospels calls the young children to him, and declares that "the Kingdom of Heaven is for such."4 Surely Our Lord desires that these souls, undefiled by their own volition, share in the Beatific Vision. It must be seen, then, if aborted infants are in fact baptized.

The sacrament of Baptism is administered by pouring water on the head and saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." Both the necessity and form of this sacrament come directly from Christ when he instructed that "Unless a man be born again of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God";5 and again, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . ."6 In this strict sense, aborted infants have not been baptized, and certainly not as a collective group. While it is a venerable practice to attempt baptism post-mortem,7 in the hope that a soul may yet still reside in the young body, such an assertion of baptism can in no way be doctrinally affirmed. Recognizing this insufficiency, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism."8 Lacking Baptism in the strict sacramental sense, Mother Church yet provides means of recourse for the salvation of souls. The question turns, then, to the first of these, their status as martyrs of Christ.

Baptism Of Blood

It has always been held by the Church that martyrs have all sin, as well as the punishment due them, washed in the shedding of their blood, and win immediate entrance into heaven.9 The Baltimore Catechism states that: "Those who through no fault of their own have not received the sacrament of Baptism can be saved through what is called baptism of blood or desire . . . An unbaptized person receives the baptism of blood when he suffers martyrdom for the faith of Christ."10 This truth is rooted in the Savior's words, as he declares that "Everyone therefore that shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in Heaven,"11 and again, "He that shall lose his life for me shall find it."12 Recalling the Baltimore Catechism, this perfect baptism of martyrdom results from death for the faith of Christ. Thus not every death is martyrdom, but "if aborted children have in some way been killed because of Jesus and his teaching, they qualify to be among those souls that were slain for the word of God."13 Either the martyr himself must choose death for Christ, or else the murderer kills out of pure hatred for Christ as his motive. In each circumstance there is the conscious participation of the human beings involved in this process, voluntarily choosing or rejecting Christ. Any erosion of this necessity, taking martyrdom out of the hands of the martyred, would seem to lessen the exalted glory in which the martyrs share. The crowning jewel of martyrdom is the perfect exercise of free will, one of God's greatest gifts, in choosing Christ above all else.

The former criterion, the choice of the martyr, requires a reason sufficiently developed to know Christ, and then to willingly die for him. In any person where reason is lacking (e.g., the aborted infants), this martyrdom appears lacking as a result. Claiming that, given reason, they would choose Christ, does little to advance their cause, for saints are not made on speculation. Is there, then, the explicit hatred of Christ on the part of the abortionist or mother (both responsible agents of death)?

In looking at the fall of man in Genesis, McCarthy sees the enmity between the seeds of man and woman14 as the diabolical hatred of children, for indeed each child is a potential saint and thus an object of intense diabolical wrath. As evidence of their martyrdom, McCarthy claims that "it can be deduced from these inspired words that a woman willfully aborting her child is being seduced by Satan, who hates the seed of woman, to hate and kill her own seed in a Satanic war against all of the physical descendants of the first Eve, but above all against the spiritual descendants of Mary, the New Eve, the supernatural Mother of all the supernaturally living."15 McCarthy is correct to highlight that abortion is indeed an object of Satanic influence, as is all sin, including murder. Yet on this account not all murder victims are martyrs, despite their witness to the sanctity of life and the diabolical wrath by which it was performed. What is missing is a duel criterion: the death must be out of direct hatred for Christ (and not simply the natural law) and this must be the conscious intention of the murderer. It would be difficult to affirm that such explicit intention (as opposed to mere social convenience, etc.) is present in any abortion, and nearly impossible to make such an assertion categorically. However, does the witness offered by the aborted infants parallel that of the Holy Innocents? The Introit of the Mass of the Holy Innocents (Tridentine rite) declares: "O God, Whose praise the martyred Innocents on this day confessed, not by speaking, but by dying, destroy all the evils of sin in us . . ."16 The Innocents are true martyrs not because of any decision on their part, but rather because of the conscious choice made by Herod to deny the Kingship of Christ.17 McCarthy brings to light the reality of abortion as an intensely supernatural struggle, yet in creating a situation where the role played by the murderer is only an indirect one, the case for martyrdom is likewise removed from the necessary direct and voluntary human participation.

Baptism Of Desire

The transcendent nature of the abortion tragedy, then, consequently leads to the one recourse left to the Church Militant mentioned above, namely, the "hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism."18 The final method of extra-sacramental baptism is the baptism of desire, attained "when he loves God above all things and desires to do all that is necessary for his salvation."19 This is essentially an act of the will in choosing Christ, or at least the highest degree of the Christian life in conformity to one's reason and circumstance. The most perfect example of a baptism of desire is seen in the death of the Good Thief on Calvary, known to posterity as St. Dismas. While having neither baptism of water nor blood, Dismas perfectly confessed the three theological virtues before Christ. In rebuking the other thief for his mockery of Christ, he demonstrated charity; he made an act of faith in declaring Christ to be the Lord and King and expressed the hope simply for a remembrance in Paradise.20 Dismas recognized Christ and expressed perfect desire, thereby allowing him to be in Heaven that very day.

Yet even without the light of faith, one who lives in a society truly vacant of the truths of the Church can still attain salvation through the desire to live in accordance with the natural law as dictated by the proper use of human reason. That such a use of the intellect and will is required is confirmed in the teaching of the Church "that only adults are capable of the baptism of desire."21 Surely, infants in the womb have not developed the reason or will to make such an act of desire; hence the need for infant baptism, for original sin is the unfortunate inheritance of all men, even those yet unborn. While indeed murder is one of the sins crying out to Heaven for vengeance, it does not follow that the means of death obliterate original sin (except of course martyrdom, the application of which is at best doubtful in the case of aborted children). Thus the sacrament of baptism is necessarily performed on infants through the desire of the parents, or even that of the Church. St. Augustine beautifully justifies this practice in affirming that, "in the Church of our Savior little children believe through others, just as they contracted from others those sins which are remitted in Baptism."22

Infant baptism, however, while performed sacramentally through the will of the parents, does not translate into a vicarious baptism of desire. Even allowing the possibility that a baptism of desire could take place vicariously should a child, intending to be baptized, die in the womb without a chance for sacramental baptism, such speculation has no place in the issue of aborted children. No such intention can exist in a mother who willingly takes the life of her own child. McCarthy draws a noteworthy analogy with the wedding feast at Cana. These infants "do not yet have the wine of sanctifying grace," but may yet be mercifully transformed by divine action. What makes this analogy incomplete, however, is the conscious compliance of the servants with the Savior's command; a compliance that does not exist in the infant souls, as the will and intellect are not sufficiently developed. The very essence of the baptism of desire, then, reinforces its intensely personal nature.

In examining the vicarious baptism of desire on the part of parents, McCarthy furthers the transcendent realm in asserting that "Mary [as the supernatural mother of all] can merit by her prayers the grace of Baptism for these infants. . . . Is it conceivable that Mary does not pray for these innocent victims of abortion at the hour of their death with an efficacious prayer that enables their Baptism of blood or of desire? It seems hardly conceivable."23 Indeed, given the infinite mercy of God, it does seem inconceivable. Yet it likewise seems inconceivable that such intercession should not be made for victims of infanticide and other similar horrors promulgated by Satan upon potential saints. The fact that God's mercy is infinite does not allow the Church, on that basis alone, to make a declaration of collective salvation in a particular case. "Other emergency forms of baptism for children dying without sacramental baptism, such as prayer and desire of the parents or the Church, or the attainment of the use of reason in the moment of death, so that the dying child can decide for or against God, or suffering and death of the child as a quasi-Sacrament, are indeed, possible, but their actuality cannot be proved from Revelation."24 These infants are truly worthy of prayers and the desire for the mercy of God. However, the lack of Divine Revelation, in union with the traditions of the Church which serve as holy precedent, leave little room for any canonical decree on this difficult issue.

Holy Mother Church, in declaring her martyrs, is strictly bound by the sacraments of which she is the sole deposit. Any type of extra-sacramental salvation, dependent entirely upon the Divine Mercy, presents for the Church a situation that is super ecclesiam, or above the sacramental jurisdiction of the Church. The transcendent nature of abortion that McCarthy brings to light points towards this very conclusion. For salvation, some form of Baptism is necessary. In the case of aborted infants, a Baptism of water may take place post-mortem; by blood if an explicit hatred of Christ was the motive for the abortion; or by desire if indeed a supernatural will or infusion of reason occurs at the moment of death. While all of the above may occur in some individual cases of aborted infants, it presents an insurmountable difficulty to make such a sweeping and categorical proclamation. The only possibility that would seem to apply universally, that of desire, is again beyond the bounds of revealed truth.

"Finally it must be borne in mind that unbaptized infants, if deprived of heaven, would not be deprived unjustly. The vision of God is not something to which human beings have a natural claim. It is a free gift of the Creator who can make what conditions he chooses for imparting it or withholding it."25 As it has always stood, such a condition as afforded to the Church remains the sacrament of Baptism. All that falls outside of this realm is commended entirely to the mercy of God. Given the limitations presented to the aborted infants, such a declaration of categorical salvation would undermine the reality of original sin, the necessity of infant baptism, defy the sacramental means of the Church, and present a universal certainty when indeed one is lacking. Rather, maintaining the traditional stance of the Church, as so beautifully voiced in the Catechism of Pope John Paul II, does much to increase hope in the mercy of God who can indeed admit to the Beatific Vision whomsoever he pleases. This is the very hope echoed by the Angelic Doctor, when, although affirming that the normal means of Baptism are not available to the infant in the womb, they "can nevertheless be subjected to the action of God, in whose presence they are living, in such wise that they achieve sanctification by some privilege of grace, as is evident regarding those who have been sanctified in the womb."26 McCarthy, who maintains that "one can hope that the same grace may also be given to babies, lethally attacked, who have never been enemies of God in mind or in evil works," reechoes this sentiment.27 This hope is a strong and convincing one, but remains only that. As the question of the status of the aborted infants utterly surpasses the bounds of the sacramental authority of the Church and of divine revelation, our prayer for these souls becomes all the more necessary in this great holocaust of our time.


1. The two main points expressed in this realm are either that such a pronouncement would lessen the terrible reality of abortion, or that increased heavenly intercessors would do much to mitigate the rate of abortion.

2. Msgr. John F. McCarthy, "Whether Aborted Children Should Be Claimed as Members of the Church," Living Tradition no. 65 (1996): 1.

3. De Baptismo, Canon V.

4. Matthew 14:14. Cf. Luke 18:15.

5. John 3:5.

6. Matthew 28:19.

7. This requires a conditional baptism, prefacing the usual formula with, "If thou art alive . . ."

8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261.

9. Hence St. Augustine: "He does injury to a martyr who prays for him" (Tr. Lxxiv in Joan.).

10. Baltimore Catechism, questions 321, 322.

11. Matthew 10:32.

12. Matthew 10:39.

13. McCarthy, 3.

14. Genesis 3:15.

15. McCarthy, 4.

16. Introit, Mass of Holy Innocents (Council of Trent).

17. Another point of note is that the death of the Holy Innocents occurred pre-Redemption, thus placing them under an entirely different paradigm of salvation than the aborted infants today.

18. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261.

19. Baltimore Catechism, 323.

20. Cf. Luke 23:39-43.

21. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Baptism."

22. St. Augustine, De Pecc. Merit. Et Remiss. 1.

23. McCarthy, 6-8.

24. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1958), 114.

25. Catholic Encyclopedia, "Baptism."

26. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 68, art. 11, ad. 2.

27. McCarthy, 9.

Mr. Brian A. Graebe is currently an undergraduate student at New York University in Manhattan, where he is pursuing a degree in philosophy. A member of the university's scholars program, he will be studying next semester in Florence, Italy. This is his first article for HPR.

© Ignatius Press 2000.

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